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National Opinion

How Iconization Reduces a Movement Into a Moment

When you think of the Civil Rights Movement, what activists come to mind? I don’t gamble, but I’m willing to bet they are Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.

Though these individuals are what most people think encapsulate the Civil Rights Movement, there is a world of activists whose work and legacy has been overshadowed by the iconization of this movement. Limiting the Civil Rights Movement to those two names or the 11 years between Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prevents us from seeing its deep-rooted intersectionality and ongoing effects. Such was the profound lesson I learned from a Yale course called “The Long Civil Rights Movement,” taught by the incredible Professor Crystal Feimster.

Feimster calls this span of 11 years the dominant narrative of the movement. It is indeed the one with which we are most familiar though not the most accurate. One could argue that the movement has roots in the enslavement of Africans in 1619 and impacts that pervade contemporary society. This tendency towards the dominant narrative is not necessarily due to our lack of wanting to learn and grow but rather an oversimplification ingrained within our education’s incomplete narrative on African Americans. But once we gain a deeper understanding that the process of this movement spans centuries rather than a mere decade, we can become more familiar with the makings of a movement today.

For example, it is tempting to minimize Rosa Parks to that December day in 1955 when she made the “spontaneous” decision to refuse to give up her bus seat; however, doing so would be an injustice to her militant ideologies and the decades of activism that provided the foreground for such an action to occur. Parks was, in actuality, an ardent activist who grew impatient with the gradualist approach towards racial equality and instead advocated for the “masculine” ideals of self-defense, militancy, and Black Power politics. 

To this day, Rosa Parks has become a praised symbol not for her actual beliefs but for her presentation as a “docile” woman. Her work did not just stop after the Montgomery Bus Boycott as she continued fighting for better conditions for Black people through grassroots organization. However, society’s romanticization of Parks highlights a poignant paradox: as people honored her more, her challenge to American democracy was perceived as less serious, and the scope of her activism grew less radical to the public eye. Parks does indeed deserve credit for making the choice to challenge authority by staying seated, but it is crucial we recognize the decades of individual activism it took for her to build up that courage. 

We can see a similar iconization in the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We remember the King who gave a speech titled “I Have a Dream” and promoted civil disobedience, but we forget that it was also King who saw racism as a national, institutional problem, linked racism at home to imperialism abroad, and was assassinated while supporting Black sanitation workers. King’s activism highlights his involvement in fighting structural racism and in the economic sphere, but we remember him for his speech and nonviolence because it is easier to do so. It is hard to address white violence, especially when we have historically ignored its prevalence throughout the movement. And as a result, the Civil Rights Movement feels distant and unrelated to the racial inequality we see today.

To assume that the struggles of African Americans ended in 1965 is perhaps the greatest injustice we could do to both the historical narrative of the movement as well as Black folx who are currently fighting against systemic oppression. Ultimately, Feimster argues that when we confine the Civil Rights Movement to a decade and to the adapted legends of two individuals, it remains rooted in the South, focused on non-economic issues, showcases certain heroes, and does not address the fact that racism is institutional. These assumptions could not be further from the truth behind the movement, yet it is the one that we have grown so accustomed to. 

That said, we must hold each and every one of ourselves accountable in embracing Black history and seeing the movement through an intersectional perspective. We have been conditioned to think of the Civil Rights Movement as a blot in our nation’s history. After all, it is no coincidence that we dedicate one sole month (and, if we’re lucky, a special history class during February most likely about Dr. King) to Black history, or that only 8 or 9 percent of history class time is devoted to it.

Feimster notes six major, tangible ways that looking at the Long Civil Rights Movement can help change the narrative of Black history. By expanding our historical lens, we can:

  1. Undermine the South’s image as being the complete opposite of the North (segregation existed in the North as much as it did in the South)
  2. Emphasize the knot that ties race to class and civil rights to workers’ rights
  3. Suggest that women’s activism were central both to the freedom movement and the backlash against it; in turn, we can observe how gender informs political activism.
  4. Make visible the modern civil rights struggles in the North, Midwest, and West.
  5. Make use of reforms won by the Movement in the 1970s.
  6. Construe the Reagan-Bush ascendency as a development in deep historical roots (i.e. what happens in the 1980s is just a development in the long pushback against the Movement).

Relearning the Movement in its deserved entirety undoubtedly requires effort on all our parts, but it will not be an effort in vain. Doing so can help us better understand how racial oppression runs through our country’s veins and, consequently, the urgency of our current racial reckoning. 
Feimster put it best in our final lecture: “Both success and failure are part of the Long Civil Rights Movement and the ongoing Civil Rights Movement. Both can help us imagine, for our own times, a new way of life of continuing a revolution: a revolution that continues to insist that Black Lives Matter.”